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K12 embraces video games

Game-based learning pinpoints special ed as well as core subjects and uses fictionalized worlds to derive real-world insight
  • DRAGONS AS PROPS—Students at Pender County Schools in North Carolina, above, play Guild Wars 2, a multiplayer online role-playing game that uses 3D fantastical environments. More teachers are incorporating video games like this as part of core lessons and to help special needs students engage.
  • CAT AND MOUSE—Spelling and vocabulary video games, like the one above, help K2 students master elements of reading. They help them form words and sentences while engaging them with fun graphics and furry, friendly creatures.
  • PERSPECTIVE TO PROBLEM SOLVE—Classrooms around the world recently played SCORCH, an ARG to solve a global pandemic. Each classroom represented a group in the game. One classroom might represent the government, Wall Street or science. Barnegat High School students, above in the green room, are part of the news network reporting on the infectious outbreak.
  • COMPASSION IN FANTASY—Video Games can teach students all sorts of skills. Students at Pender County Schools in North Carolina play Guild Wars 2, a multiplayer role-playing game. The games not only teach SEL, such as compassion, but core skills that are needed to maneuver the real world.
  • MORE COMPASSION IN FANTASY—World of Warcraft is another popular tool. The video games not only teach SEL, such as compassion, but core skills that are needed to maneuver the real world.

Welcome to the second annual game-based learning special report in District Administration.

Games continue to grow in popularity in K12 lessons ranging from science and math to English and social studies. They include alternate reality games that hook students’ imaginations and introduce social-emotional learning lessons to help students process feelings and thoughts.

In a soon-to-be-released study of eighth-graders in seven states, results reveal that game-based learning can not only engage students, leading them to perform better on assessments, but it can be easily incorporated into lessons.

The study, “Substantial Integration of Typical Educational Games into Extended Curricula,” was spearheaded by Vadim Polikov, a research scientist. He partnered with Vanderbilt University. The study reveals that short games used in U.S. history lessons helped all students—particularly special education students-—think more critically.

And on assessment tests those who played games outperformed their peers who didn’t use games and just had traditional instruction, Polikov says.

The study covered three weeks of content with five learning objectives, and included 55 games that were built by 16 development studios, says Polikov. Because of the study’s positive results, he created Legends of Learning, a platform that offers educational games.

While many games require hours of activity, a new generation of shorter ones are here, lasting anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes. They’re also easier to integrate into K12 lessons, Polikov says.

And the games allow teachers and students to give feedback on what they like or don’t like about them. Teachers could easily see, via a dashboard, results of how each student is progressing in a game in real time. Teachers can pause the game and re-teach a learning standard that might be tripping up students.

The report offers successful examples.

Squishing insects, planting crops bolster ELA, science concepts

Oh no! The city has been invaded by cockroaches, each carrying a letter of the alphabet as they scurry across a student’s computer screen.

The only way to eradicate the insects is to squish the ones carrying letters needed to spell a word missing from an on-screen sentence. “Kids love it,” says Barbara Kruger, director of professional learning and partnerships for VocabularySpellingCity (VSC), which developed Splat-N-Spell in part to help K2 students master spelling.

The digital game is one of a growing number being used in schools to help students learn core curriculum concepts in English language arts to science.

Building a foundation

Similarly, Science4Us—named CODiE’s Best Science Instructional Solution for 2016—reaches K2 students through animated characters that demonstrate matter, energy and other science concepts in 30-minutes sessions.

“The games build foundational science skills presented by educators who need a supportive, standards-rich program,” says Perri Robinson, the company’s sales and marketing manager.

Many commercial games—those not designed specifically for education— also effectively teach concepts in the classroom, says Lucas Gillispie, director of academic and digital learning for Surry County Schools in North Carolina.

Many online virtual worlds have their own economies, for example, so they can teach students about market demand for items in crafts or trade, says Gillispie.

In addition, players must analyze factors such as distance to travel or a weapon’s damage-per-second rating to determine the best options during combat in a virtual world.

Gillispie developed an ELA curriculum based on the commercial game World of Warcraft and has seen students immersed, unlike with more traditional lessons he has taught.

“We treat World of Warcraft like you would treat any kind of novel in a literature class,” Gillispie says. “But rather than reading chapter one or chapter two, we have a shared experience in this virtual fantasy world with rich text and political intrigue, and we treat it as if we read a novel—we analyze it, reflect and tie it to real life.”

Likewise, World of Warcraft lends itself to science, as players must plant crops to survive in a virtual world. “Herbs and plants have their own ecology,” Gillispie says.

“They grow in certain spaces and not others. You can ask a student, ‘What’s the natural environment for this organism? Where does it live; what does it eat?’ Then they can look at examples in the real world and make connections.”

Results are clear

A recently released evaluation of VSC shows vocabulary improvements for Florida students in grades 2 through 5 who used the program over a three-month period in 2016.

They saw the following gains compared with a control group:

  • a 43 percent increase in vocabulary retention mean scores
  • a 22 percent increase in reading comprehension for native speakers (according to data from STAR Reading assessment, which measures student performance compared with a national sample)
  • a 48 percent increase in lexile level for text and reading.

Alternate reality games blur fact, fiction while taking students to new worlds

It looked like a typical English factsheet on Christopher Columbus until the third bullet point.

As the Barnegat High School students in New Jersey wondered aloud why the text looked like gibberish, teacher Chris Aviles just shrugged and continued his lesson on Columbus.

Eventually a student realized the letters were a code, and she deciphered it to reveal a plea for help—but from whom she did not know.

She told her best friend in another period, and that girl told someone else, and soon 150 students in Aviles’ five English sections were down the rabbit hole of “2020”—an alternate reality game featuring “Sammy,” a teenager who needed the students’ help to save her dystopian world of the future.

The students would eventually succeed by preventing a popular present-day politician from becoming president, as Sammy explained that if he was elected, he would be corrupted by power and imprison her and others who spoke out against his policies.

Alternate reality games (ARGs) combine digital and real world elements to immerse players in an interactive narrative experience.

To immerse students in a fictionalized world to derive insight into real-world issues, organizers use phony media, false documents and real life elements such as actors and telephones, says John Fallon, who teaches English at Fairfield Country Day School in Connecticut.

To maintain the fictional/factual worlds, teachers typically don’t acknowledge a game is underway, which is why Aviles shrugs when his students ask.

“It’s a different way of students accessing material,” says Paul Darvasi, an ARG enthusiast who teaches high school English and media studies at Royal St. George’s College in Toronto. “It’s much more dynamic. You could really revolutionize education and appeal to people in an important way.”

Fear of missing clues

Darvasi and Fallon developed an ARG called “Blind Protocol” about privacy and surveillance after meeting at a conference years ago.

Today, Darvasi, Fallon and Aviles —now edtech coach in the Fair Haven School District in New Jersey—say they’ve seen better attendance, participation and comprehension among students who get immersed in ARGs, even games that don’t tie directly to a particular subject.

“The 2020 game wasn’t connected to the content,” Aviles says, “but it was a reason to pay attention to the content. It was connected to broader English concepts like critical thinking, reading comprehension and context clues.

“If they missed a class they might miss clues,” he adds. “They were more engaged for presentations. They looked with a more critical eye because they never knew what was related to (the narrative involving) Sammy. Grades improved because obviously kids who are more interested and pay attention, perform better.”

One day Aviles found students lined up outside his classroom at 6:30 a.m. to check a school locker where they had left capacitors and other computer parts for Sammy to fix the quantum computer she used to communicate with them.

“Getting a high school kid to show up early is basically impossible,” Aviles says, reiterating the excitement an ARG can generate with students.

“Nothing’s a silver bullet, but if you are trying to engage your kids, trying new things, the kids can tell you care about them. Kids are then more likely to care and push the envelope with learning.”

Good reads

3 Ways to Use Game-Based Learning, Matt Farber, edut.to/2dr81xE

Down the Rabbit Hole: How to Turn Your Class into an Alternate Reality Game, Paul Darvasi, www.ludiclearning.org

Game On: Using Digital Games to Transform Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, Ryan Schaaf and Nicky Mohan, www.amazon.com

Why games are important to education, games4ed.org

Digital games connect with special needs students

Like athletes or singers, students with special needs can often benefit from warming up before showtime, says Frank Lieberman, executive director of KNeoWorld, which produces digital games for “exceptional learning requirements.”

“I like to say we are a warmup to the academics, but I don’t want to downplay the learning aspect,” says Lieberman, talking about the digital game series called KneoESP, used in New York City public schools. “The games enhance math, reading, geography, reasoning.”

For example, when students learn to read, a teacher can first play a digital word game in which a visual cue, like a picture of a cat or a hat, appears with letters that must be unscrambled to spell the word.

“It helps them understand phonics and reading,’’ says Elizabeth Haukaas, corporate communications director for KNeoWorld. “They learn the sound is attached to a letter, the letter is attached to a word. It’s especially helpful for visual learners.”

Ryan Schaaf, assistant professor of technology in the Notre Dame of Maryland University School of Education, says the technology itself is often a draw for students who learn differently than typically developing children.

Many students with special needs, such as autism, gravitate toward technology because “it’s an outlet for them to express themselves,” Schaaf says. “To communicate in the world could be difficult, but online there are no consequences to making a mistake. If they get something wrong, they can just do it again.”

Auditory and visual cues accommodate different learning preferences for students, and not being forced to interact with other people can help. “You don’t get oppositional defiance with a game because you can’t argue with rules the way you can argue with a teacher,” Schaaf says.

Many schools use Minecraft, the digital block-building game, to teach math concepts such as area and perimeter or science lessons related to planting crops for a virtual community being built.

The game often captivates children with ADHD, says Matthew Farber, a social studies teacher at Valleyview Middle School in New Jersey, and author of Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning.

“It is also multimodal,” Farber says of Minecraft. “Students can play together in a shared virtual world, communicating in text chat and with others’ avatars. Anecdotally, some students with Aspergers do well in such environments.”

Digital games engross students so they can get to the business of learning. “Engagement and behavior go hand in hand,” Haukaas says. “If students are focused, they can learn.”

Social-emotional learning games remind students of community

Whether practicing patience while a teammate attempts to overthrow an oppressive virtual ruler or vicariously sensing uncertainty while watching a refugee camp documentary, social-emotional learning often plays a role in succeeding in digital games.

“The beautiful thing about online game environments is there’s a meaningful context there,” says Lucas Gillispie, director of academic and digital learning for Surry County Schools in North Carolina.

“If we go with students into that space, we can help them be more metacognitive. We can pause, and say ‘Let’s look at what just happened. Why is this behavior online not a good thing?’ Or ‘Why is this a good thing?’”

Social-emotional learning games teach youngsters they are part of a larger society and they must work together to accomplish goals in life, says Gary Goldberger, president and co-founder of game-designer FableVision Studios.

“In almost all SEL games, questions arise: ‘What is my place? How does an individual’s actions affect the group?’” Goldberger says. “Using games is one way to make these (issues) approachable to kids.”

Digital games allow students to learn social and emotional strategies through scenarios they might encounter in the real world. For example, one lesson in the digital SEL game Zoo U presents an animated situation in which a character is excluded from a group activity.

The player chooses different ways for the character to react, then sees how each option plays out. The student learns effective ways of dealing with a similar situation in the real world.

In High Point, North Carolina, teacher Alexa Baird often uses Zoo U as a springboard for conversations with her fourth-graders. She says the animated characters who face bullying or who must cooperate or employ other soft skills make students feel more comfortable discussing problems they face in real life.

“I’ve been able to communicate better with some students, and they can relate it back to their lives,” Baird says.

Zoo U helped one boy identify situations—such as being left out of a game—that triggered angry outbursts. He then developed coping strategies, such as walking away.

“I’ve seen students be more generous and kind and have more self-motivation,” Baird says. “It’s really important that my 9-year-olds learn these skills now, so when they get to middle school and high school, where it can be a jungle socially, they will find it easier to figure out who they are and how they fit in.”

Scot Osterweil, creative director of the MIT Game Lab, says it’s especially important for students to reflect on their digital experiences and consider what they’ve learned—about themselves and about their place in the larger world.

“Learning is always enhanced when there is an opportunity to reflect or process,” Osterweil says. “So it would be totally appropriate for a teacher to talk with a student about persistence in a game, point out that they worked really hard or were good at cooperating.”


Regina Whitmer is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.